The world is constantly changing asare its inhabitants and all things created by them. In the same way, design hasalways been in constant evolution, and will always be so. The main cause of thistendency to evolve is social change: as people review their needs, tastes,beliefs and behaviour, products anddesigns follow a similar pattern. In this essay I will evaluate some vital aspectsof social change that have impacted the evolution of design in both positive andnegative ways. The desireand ability to create things has always been part of our human instinct.Through time we have learned to give our products and belongings a symbolic ratherthan strictly practical value (Cahill, 2016).
In theNeolithic era, which was around 1200 BC, furniture was mainly made of stone, amaterial that was easily accessible at that time. Despite its practicalfunction, furniture pieces such as the stone dresser were regarded as highlyimportant, as by facing the entrance it symbolically greeted the guests (Cahill,2016). This value has evolved through decades but without complete extinction. Eventhough the products we have attributed value to over the centuries havechanged, we haven’t lost our creative drive, and product symbolism isincredibly significant as a “mediator of self-definition and role performance” (Solomon,1983).If we consider the ancient Egyptian era thatgoes from 2000-3000 BC, chairs had the same function as nowadays, but despitethis, they were only used by the master of the house and the powerful(Reshafim, 2000). At the time, chairs symbolised power and status and were madespecifically for the individual. The higher ranked a person was, the taller thechair (Reshafim, 2000). In addition, they often carved the legs of thefurniture in the form of animal legs in devotion to their gods which theybelieved to have the physical form of hybrid creatures (Reshafim, 2000).
Nowadays,we may not have the same beliefs as the Egyptians, but we most certainly carry productsymbolism. We use design in clothing to express who we are as individuals andbrands for social status. We become constantly attached to products, bestowinggreat value on them and in some way creating feelings for them (Wright et al,1992). For example, I-phones carry great symbolism in these modern times, andmany people would agree that without their smart phone, they would feel lost. Appleis an incredibly iconic brand (Miller,2015). Jean-Louis Gassée, former Appleexecutive describes the logo as “the symbol of lust and knowledge” (Redding,2014). This is because, even though the bite in the apple was realised so thatit wouldn’t look like a cherry, having a bite of the apple symbolises thehealthy routine of using a computer to “obtain knowledge and ideally enlightenthe human race” (Redding, 2014).
Therefore, due to its success which isidentified with lightness, intuitiveness and elegance, one could say that Applepeople identify themselves with being smart (like the logo), elegant (like its look)and wealthy (because of its market price). All vital characteristics on thesocial scale of self- identification that induce people to buy products theydon’t necessarily need.There has always been a gap between the richand the poor and this was also very clear during the first consumer revolutionin the early 18th century. As might be expected, during this periodthe poor were spiritually virtuous and would only buy the minimum necessary. Asopposed to the rich that were instigated by advertisements to spend more forbeauty and fashion.
This led to something that at the time was considered a sin:vanity. (Mottram, 2017)From the 18thcentury onwards our vain consumer society has continued to expand. Trends are in control of our actions, everyonewants to be “in” fashion.
For this reason, every year when a new I-phone comesout, even though there is barely any design difference from the previous one, boththe wealthy and not-so-wealthy dispose of their out-of-fashion yet fully-functioningphones in order to buy the latest version. One might ask oneself why societycannot change its ways or fight this excessive impulse to spend. The answer seems to be in the extremelypowerful and convincing drive for social identification, which advertisers arenaturally aware of and ably use to control our inclination to make purchases. In fact,advertising has always influenced peoples’ mentality and consequentially productdesign.
Advertisements were responsible for expanding the idea that germsexisted where dirt was, and the mentality of keeping everything spotless in thehome derived from this. The pursuit of hygiene reached its height in the 1920sand 1930s and products were often made white on the basis that you could spotthe dirt immediately and, therefore, they were consequently hygienic (Mottram,2017). The idea that a white surface is a clean, hygienic and tidy surface is stillalive in modern day designs. The modern, white and simplistic pieces offurniture such as Eero Saarinen’s Round Tulip table are examples of newelegance.
Before the time ofmechanisation and advertising, elegance was defined by décor, colour and maximalist design, however, nowadays monochromatic,simplistic and minimalist designs are considered the height of elegance. Possibly in the future skilful maximaliststyles will be adopted by designers again. On one hand, a designer has to design for the needs andtrends of the current time but, on the other hand has the power and ability to change a design’s function, form andaesthetics in order to create a new style and trend. An example of modern maximalist products isthe work by designer Juan Pablo Molyneux, who “uses a range of techniques,combining wallpapers and furniture, to achieve a magical beauty in hisinteriors” (Brown, 2016).
Furthermore, it appears that the birth ofconsumerism and mass production has had a negative impact on society, designand the environment. Our environment is now suffering because of our habits.Researches show that only 1% of what we produce is kept and 99% of it istrashed. This causes great issues of both waste of resources and pollution inthe world. However, thanks to our awareness we are now able to turn thingsaround and make sustainable designs such as the Saltwater Brewery 6 pack ring,a product that is made from wheat and barley waste that is dissolvable and edibleby the fish living in the ocean. With our knowledge of materials and use ofmachines, we are now able to make sustainable products just like this one whichwon’t ruin the environment with the 10 million tonnes of pack rings that end upin the sea each year.
(Mottram, 2017) On a similar negative line, mechanisationhas influenced our approach to design and the way we create and make things. Inthe 18th century, good designs were extremely valuable tomanufacturers, as companies competed with each other almost entirely on qualityand popularity of design. However, with the invention of machines, manufacturersstopped focusing on the quality of their designs and started aiming at priceand quantity. Even though machines didn’t give the same outcome that a handmadedesign would have, retailers only wanted a low-quality product rather thanlooking for higher quality products. (Mottram, 2017) In addition to this, the manufacturers saveda lot of money because they would pay fewer workers for a greater quantity ofproduction. This has had a huge impact on design in both a positive andnegative way. Thanks to mechanisation we are now able to produce incrediblequantities of products in a short period of time, with less work effort andmoney.
Nevertheless,producing a large quantity of products for the masses isn’t necessarily thebest way to go. Because of this, design quality and consumer satisfaction aredeclining. We aren’t making products for the individual anymore, and possiblywe shouldn’t forget that we are making them for human beings.
This is why, whendeveloping a product, it is important for the designer to consider not only thefunction of the product but also the broader environmental and social issues(BBC, 2004). A design may be judged as being very good because the finishedproduct does precisely what it was intended to do,however, the way that the product is intended to be used may be judged as beingbad or wrong for the morale (Lipot, 2005). Take for example idiopathicscoliosis braces.
These braces are highly focused on the function of theproduct which is to correct spinal deformity effectively. However, manypatients suffer from depression during therapy because of the aesthetic aspectsof the product; such as the absence of style, colour and pattern. In addition,9 out of 10 patients stated that they felt useless because the straps had beendesigned at the back and they had to rely on other people to put the brace on(Law et al., 2017). Even though the brace treats spinal deformity, the designershould have taken into consideration the psychological impact of the designbecause “how people perceive and use products often handicaps innovations”(Kelley and Littman, 2001, 165). Furthermore,mass production is lowering the standards of design because designs are madefor the general public rather than the specific special needs of individuals(Lipot, 2005). For example, old-age pensioners who tend to be lonely, feelalienated when using self-service machines because they don’t have anyone toask them how they are but are spoken to by robots like Siri, Apple’sintelligent personal assistant.
Despite this, old-age pensioners aren’t the only ones to have alienating and frustrating experiencesat these self-service checkouts because many times these machines don’t scancodes properly or simply require assistance, which instead of making thecheckout experience more efficient tends to make it time-consuming andirritating (Independent, 2014). Probably the solution to this would be to usebetter software, but this would cause a rise in costs, which runs counter tothe mentality of making more to sell more (Mottram, 2017). On thewhole, there have been many social changes that have influenced design inpositive ways, such as the experimentation and evolution of new styles, forms, andmaterials that have nevertheless shaped and improved our standard of living. However, there have also been many negativesocial changes that have driven us to become a consumer society which focuseson quantity and functionality.
Adesigner has the power and ability to change societal oriented styles bymastering the form, functionality and beauty of products. Hopefully, thisis the beginning of a third industrial revolution where designers will focus on”retaining an artisanal value for the consumer” (Follett, 2015) andconsideration for the environment.